ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - January 2001


Surviving in The New Economy: From virtual workplaces to technology overload, this special feature takes an in-depth look at the changing demands of our workplaces and world.

  In This Issue...

Celebrating the Power of People
Tricks of the Trade—Unique Tranining Ideas
Views For A Change
Pageturners: Flawless Consulting Fieldbook

 One From Column B —
I Will Survive

 Peter Block explains why the new economy is just an economy, and why our relationships and our senses promise survival .

  Surviving In The New   Economy:

Working In A Virtual World
Defining The New Economy
Penny Sanchez- Burruss and Barry Johson, Ph.D

The 24/7 Work Invasion
Info, Info, Everywhere!
Brief Cases
Tips: It's About Time and Finding Time


Return to NFC Index

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

I Will Survive

It seems everyone wants to know how to survive in the new economy. If we are questioning our survival, then something must be at risk. The conventional wisdom is that what is at risk is our old way of doing business. The world would have us believe that the Internet will change everything about how we work, sell, distribute and ultimately live our lives. I don't think so.

  While everything on the surface may be changing, underneath, the new economy has much in common with the old economy. Both offer a world defined by economics. They both are organized to satisfy the shareholder, often at the expense of customers, community and employees. Both old and new economy companies define and dominate our culture. The arts, foreign policy, politics and even crime take a back seat to news about business. Allan Greenspan is still the most powerful man in America-when he gives a speech, everybody listens. Finally, new and old economy companies both internally operate basically in a high-control, father-knows-best style, despite differences in dress code, work hours and the fact that foosball has become the game of choice of high tech environments.

  So if the question is whether you, as an individual, will economically survive in the new economy, the answer is yes. You will survive in the new economy as well as you survived in the old economy, for the core values are the same, even though the tools are different.
How we will culturally and socially survive, though, is a different question. What is at risk in the new economy is the quality of our experience, both individually and collectively. The belief that it takes a human hand to create something, a human eye to give measure or meaning to something, essentially whether what is most human in us has value or meaning in this commerce driven culture, is now in question.

Losing Our Place

  In a book entitled, "Life is a Miracle," Wendell Berry states that we are in the midst of "the virtually universal adoption of the idea that the world, its creatures and all the parts of its creatures are machines-that is, there is no difference between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation. Our language, wherever it is used, is now almost invariably conditioned by the assumption that fleshly bodies are machines full of mechanisms, fully compatible with the mechanisms of medicine, industry and commerce; and that minds are fully compatible with electronic technology." What this means, then, is that while we will all make a living, and some will get rich and most will get by, what may not survive is our sense of place and our appreciation of what is truly human. In the enthusiasm for this new world, feeling is being replaced by speed, profits are being replaced by volume and the weather report is virtually obsolete because there is no reason to leave the house. Sidewalks are now obsolete, since I barely know my neighbors. I shop only at a mall or better yet, by mail.

  What is most distinguishing about the new economy is its dependency on an electronic and automated existence. We increasingly are moving towards the elimination of place. Work as a place, community as a place, people meeting in a room together have now all been declared obsolete. The electronic expectation is now replacing all of this.
As a result, my sense of smell, touch and observation are being eliminated from the marketplace and workplace. Place now occurs electronically. I spend my days staring at a screen and telling myself that I have gone someplace.

  When our sense of place is eliminated, something happens to our identity, our sense of who we are and what is unique and valuable about us. When I no longer see myself reflected in a street, a store, a sidewalk, someone behind a counter that I recognize, I am lost. This is all being replaced with the "customer intimacy" of a Web site, where they know not only my name, but what I have purchased in the last year and what others like me have purchased recently. This is really an elegant form of customer control masquerading under the name of customer service.

The Double Whammy

  Coupled with the isolating effects of the technology, what the new economy also symbolizes is our recommitment to a new level of materialism. Economics have become the universal solvent and speed is its primary ingredient. We now have hiring bonuses and staying bonuses as the primary way we think about our employees. It is only a matter of time before the dowry will return as a driving force in selecting a marriage partner-it is just an old form of a hiring bonus.

  Soon, I also will have to offer my children financial incentives to come right home after school. When I was young, we would visit my uncle Ted in Waukegan once a year. He ran his dinner table the same way he ran his automobile dealership. He would pay his kids 10 cents to eat their peas, 25 cents to eat spinach and 50 cents to clear the table. Visiting them always triggered an unsuccessful negotiation between my parents and me, because I liked peas and spinach and felt economically cheated that I received no financial compensation for my high-performing eating patterns. I didn't know it then, but uncle Ted was a man ahead of his time.

Da Point

  There is more to life than new marketing information and distribution systems. Just because these things are amazing does not mean they are important. What threatens my survival in the new economy is my romantic attachment to its tools and the wealth that it promises. I, for one, love the new technology, but it just does not make much difference. It does little to improve the quality of my experience. Just because I can do it faster, does not mean I can do it better, or enjoy it more or find meaning in it. It does not help me sleep at night, or wake up with more enthusiasm, or raise my kids with more insight, or deepen my capacity to love or forgive.

  The attraction of the new economy is a distraction from what matters. For us to really survive the new economy, we will need to decide that relationships are important and the senses are what help create and sustain them. We need to remember that employees and customers are essential, and we are close to the danger point where we have reduced our employees and automated our customers to such an extent that all real life has been removed from our institutions. And we will have to remember that community, a place outside my house where I feel at home, is what gives us a collective identity, even a democracy.

  The new economy is just may be somewhat new, but it is just an economy. It is not a way of life, a replacement for life, a creator of life or an answer of any magnitude. It is simply the advent of amazing tools applied to mostly mundane problems.

January 2001Homepage

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